DuPont is building one of the world’s largest cellulosic biofuel plants in Nevada, Iowa; and it’s going to take a lot of corn stover to keep this baby humming, to the tune of 30 million gallons of ethanol per year. Corn stover is the leaves, stems, and anything else left over from harvesting the edible part of the corn harvest. The facility won’t be up and running until mid-2014, but DuPont is already looking ahead to contracting with more than 500 farmers to keep the stover coming. Aside from providing some extra income, the project could also help local farmers resolve some sticky crop management issues.
Corn Stover Means More than Biofuel
As a next-generation biofuel feedstock, corn stover fills multiple roles. First and foremost it piggybacks on a food crop, so at least theoretically it crowds out zero acres of land for human or animal feed.
Secondly, the use of corn stover as a feedstock can help farmers achieve more efficient crop management.
According to DuPont, corn stover is a “major challenge” for many corn farmers, because it can harbor pests, contribute to nitrogen depletion, and interfere with the next planting.
Generally, leaving some residue after harvest is good for soil preservation, but too much of a good thing can be a headache.
The new facility will collect about 375,000 dry tons of stover annually, from about 190,000 acres in a radius of 30 miles from Nevada (Nevada, Iowa that is).
Taking Iowa Biofuel to the Next Level
Cellulosic biofuel is the dream that biofuel researchers have been chasing for a generation. In breadbasket states like Iowa, it means a second life for harvest leftovers. In other states, you could see marginal lands planted with perennial biofuel crops like shrub willow and poplar trees.
The challenge is to find a cost-effective way of breaking down the tough cell walls to get at the sugary goodness inside.
For DuPont, that involved building a ten-year project culminating in a pilot plant in Tennessee to shake down the process. That experiment has proved so promising that the capacity of the new facility exceeds the original estimates.
We Built This!
You can mark down James C. Collins, the president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences, as another corporate leader who recognizes the value of partnering private enterprise with public funds to benefit the general welfare. At the groundbreaking, Collins said:
“And we didn’t get to this point alone. We’ve built an incredible partnership with the state of Iowa, Iowa State University, entrepreneurial growers and a whole host of partners around the country who share our vision of making renewable fuels a commercial reality.”
It’s pretty clear that Collins is not in agreement with certain U.S. legislators who have been heard to complain about the government picking energy “winners and losers.” It stands to reason that the government’s job is to set policy (why else have a government?), which by nature involves making informed choices.
For the Iowa state government, this is one choice that preserves farmland, provides additional income to local farmers, creates new jobs (DuPont estimates 60 full-time jobs at the plant and 150 seasonal jobs at harvest time), and contributes to the domestic fuel supply with renewable alternative to petroleum.
Not a bad pick.
Image: Courtesy of DuPont
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.